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Development Economics med Ingrid Kvangraven

Opdateret: 22. okt. 2021

Interviewet er lavet i forbindelse med nyhedsbrevet Oikonomia, der er skrevet af Anine Hvid, Anne Nørgaard og Benedicte Zacho. I Oikonomia kan du læse om nogle af de økonomiske skoler, tanker og teorier, der alt for sjældent får opmærksomhed. Læs mere om os og skriv dig op her.

Ingrid Kvangraven er adjunkt i international udvikling ved King's College i London. Læs mere om hendes forskning her. Hun er desuden kvinden bag bloggen (, der kan anbefales til alle der gerne vil læse

mere om kritiske perspektiver på økonomisk udvikling.

What is Development Economics?

Development Economics is a subfield of Economics that traditionally deals with the economics of the Global South. It arose as a distinct field of study as colonies started to gain traction when former colonies were gaining independence. There was then an emerging scholarship that was concerned with how economies of the so-called Third World were distinct from economies of the so-called First World. You had scholars within what has since been called the developmentalist tradition, such as the German economist Albert Hirschman, the Caribbean economist Arthur Lewis, and the Polish economist Rosenstein-Rodan, that advocated for development policies informed by the structural differences between center and periphery, which often entailed active state intervention. This approach was relatively interventionist because of the discrediting of orthodox laissez-faire economics following the Great Depression. The goal, within this tradition was to find out what the distinct barriers to industrialization were for countries in the periphery.

While the developmentalists were the mainstream of the field in the mid-20th century, there were other strands of development economics in the periphery, drawing on Marxist, structuralist, institutionalist, and anti-colonial theories that offered other insights into what development should entail and what the challenges the countries in the newly independent world were facing.

Development Economics as a subfield has evolved since then. Today it has been narrowed to become a branch of neoclassical economics, where development problems are identified as deviations from a neoclassical ideal. For example, focus is on how to nudge people to behave more rationally or to shape institutions to operate more efficiently. In this way, the specificities of the peripheries have to a large extent been removed and developing economics has become more about applying the theoretical framework now dominant in the core to the periphery as well. Meanwhile, as in the mid-20th century, there are many alternatives to the mainstream that exist in parallel, that take very different approaches to understanding development.

How can you understand development?

There are many ways of understanding development. In the mainstream, development is often equated with economic growth or economic betterment, which in turn is associated with developing countries becoming more rational, more efficient, and more capitalist (essentially, more like the developed world).

Others, such as dependency theorists, see development as a way for the periphery to break out of its dependent relationship with the core. This would mean addressing the colonial legacies that we see in the world today, for example in terms of how production, trade, finance, technology and knowledge production is structured. This does not necessarily mean following the path of developed countries, but rather post-colonial countries breaking from their colonial ties and finding their own path to improve the wellbeing of the people living there.

Others yet, challenge the whole concept of ‘development’ for being a colonial construction itself. For example, you can trace the origins of development economics back to theorizing in England during colonialism and the civilizing mission that was used to justify colonization. What’s more, as the postcolonial scholar Gilbert Rist has noted, there is an alleged goodness that has been associated with development that tends to go unequestioned, and in that way development is a bit like religion. Although there may be ‘bad actors’ - such as priests that behave badly or aid workers who abuse their power – you do not question the ideology itself. This kind of view of development tends to obscure the fact that the project of development has very often been associated with violence and exploitation.

Personally, I would understand progress in the periphery to be about emancipation. This is a much stronger and more explicitly political project than ‘development’ as such.

What does development economics contribute with?

If we consider the wealth of theories within development economics, there is much that the subfield can contribute with. It can contribute to a better understanding of the massive inequalities that we see in the world, for example. It can contribute to our understanding of the role that history plays in shaping the world economy. What’s more, as the core countries are starting to experience many of the same problems that countries in the periphery have experienced for centuries, such as precariousness, austerity, and environmental crises, developed countries also have a lot to learn from developing countries.

What role does the relationship between the global North and South play in Development Economics

This depends on the strand of development economics that you are dealing with. Within mainstream theory, the relationship is not as central. Developing countries can trade their way out underdevelopment by focusing on their comparative advantage, upgrading certain industries, and developing more efficient institutions. None of these things require any radical reordering of the global economy. However, if you consider heterodox development theories, the relationship between the global North and South is often a central issue, where the theories explore how the global South is in a disadvantageous position vis-a-vis the global North.

Are there a better understanding of how to create a more just world?

How to create a more just world will depend on what kind of development economist you ask. Oftentimes, mainstream economists will claim that their research is neutral or apolitical, which means their work is not centrally about creating a just world, but rather about uncovering ‘empirical’ phenomena. However, work in heterodox traditions tends to be more explicit about its ideological underpinnings. Dependency theorists, for example, were very often explicit about their radical political goals, which were motivated by the need for radical change in order to achieve social justice for the periphery.

Will development economics help eradicate hunger everywhere?

Unfortunately, the way the development economics field is structured right now does not hold much promise for eradicating hunger everywhere. As I’ve written elsewhere, the field tends to focus on a narrow set of interventions and solutions that will not radically alter the current economic and political order. The SDGs too fail to provide guidance for radical change. And the current economic and political order is highly unequal, producing and reproducing massive inequalities, that lead to impoverishment and hunger. In order for development economics to play a constructive role in ending hunger and poverty, the first step is to re-politicize the sub-field so that we can have a more open discussion about the political economy of development.

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